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TORMENT: ENTER BERGMAN
Torment (1944) marked the official emergence of Ingmar Bergman onto the world cinema stage. Though directed by his renowned compatriot Alf Sjöberg, it was the twenty-four-year-old Bergman’s big break as a screenwriter and, in its themes and preoccupations, is a remarkably precocious precursor to what was to come from this fledgling master. After Bergman had successfully staged one of his plays, The Death of Punch, at the Student Theater in Stockholm, in 1942, he was hired to read scripts for Svensk Filmindustri on a one-year contract. At the same time, fortuitously, Sjöberg—who had made a name for himself on the stage as well as with such films as They Staked Their Lives (1939) and The Heavenly Play (1942)—had been hired by the studio, but executives were having trouble finding a project for him. When Bergman offered his own script to the company, Sjöberg took notice immediately: he had produced several plays with antifascist sentiments at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater, and Torment’s Nazi allegory must have appealed to his own sensibilities.
If the film’s visual flair (mobile camera movements, sinister low angles, noirish chiaroscuro lighting) comes courtesy of Sjöberg—who would later use similar techniques to great effect in his classic adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1951)—the distinctly rebellious yet world-weary outlook is pure Bergman. Both a scathing critique of formalized education (and, by extension, all forms of established repression) and a mordant romantic melodrama, Torment is infused with the dread that would mark so many of Bergman’s later films. Upon its release, he publicly stated that his inspiration was his own hellish school experiences. This summarily prompted a letter from the headmaster of his old boarding school, chastising him for sullying its reputation. Bergman responded: “I hated school as a principle, as a system, and as an institution. And as such I have definitely not wanted to criticize my own school, but all schools.”
In its charting of the fraught coming-of-age of the headstrong yet good-hearted senior-year student Widgren, Torment provides a nexus for Bergman’s distrust of institutions not connected to the theater: school, religion, marriage. The film is especially suggestive of Bergman’s epochal Wild Strawberries (1957), from its depiction of the fallibility and false worship of academia to its striking nightmare sequences. And in its central, doomed love triangle—involving Widgren, his sadistic Latin teacher, “Caligula,” and the cherubic tobacco-shop girl Bertha—lie the seeds of the romantic pessimism that would haunt everything from Through a Glass Darkly (1961) to Scenes from a Marriage (1973).
Torment was also, in part, Bergman’s directorial debut. The film’s original ending—which had Caligula going unpunished—was deemed too dark by producers, and Bergman, who intended this character to represent the seeds of fascism, agreed that it was necessary to show him being stopped. He rewrote the scenes, but Sjöberg was unavailable to shoot them, so Bergman stepped in. Thus the film became a literal passing of the torch from one Swedish master to the next.
CRISIS: “LET’S RAISE THE CURTAIN”
After getting his feet wet as the screenwriter and assistant director on Alf Sjöberg’s Torment, Ingmar Bergman made his real directorial debut, in 1946, with Crisis. Adapted from Danish playwright Leck Fisher’s Moderdyret, a melodrama of mothers and daughters that Bergman later called “grandiose drivel,” Crisis provided the space for Bergman to experiment with a form that was new to him. Perhaps too new: executives at Svensk Filmindustri, who had assigned the film to Bergman on faith, were so disappointed by the daily rushes that the production was brought to a halt after three weeks and the eminent Swedish director Victor Sjöström was brought on as a supervisor. “I knew nothing, could do nothing, and felt like a crazy cat in a ball of yarn,” Bergman later recalled.
Bergman’s film debut came during his stint at the Hälsingborg City Theatre, where he had been appointed artistic director at a remarkably young age, and his aesthetic interests hadn’t yet translated from stage to screen. But if Bergman had trouble completely shedding his theatrical ways, he playfully acknowledges as much in the opening: “Let’s raise the curtain,” the narrator beckons, as a window shade is pulled up on the home of the sweet, eighteen-year-old Nelly, who’s about to be reclaimed from her adoptive mother, and uprooted from her peaceful hamlet, by her gaudy, beauty-shop owner mother, Mrs. Jenny. Despite the early production difficulties (which also included a camera-shy actress, Dagny Lind, and frequent outbursts by Bergman) and a mélange of seemingly incompatible genres—Ibsen by way of the woman’s film and noir—Crisis bears no mark of chaos. Its staginess is relieved by a thoroughly engaging narrative and often exquisite compositions, and while its forthright melodrama might not be a perfect fit for Bergman’s more stringent technique, the film does augur the director’s later motifs, specifically in its focus on the interrelationships of women, exemplified in the far more stripped-down narratives of Brink of Life (1958), Persona (1966), and Cries and Whispers (1972).
A traditional portrait of provincial innocence versus urban corruption, Crisis most comes to life when Bergman focuses on the character of Jack, a mysterious, mustachioed bounder in a dapper bow tie who siphons money and love from Mrs. Jenny. Seemingly a master seducer, Jack (played by Stig Olin, in the first of six performances he gave for Bergman in the forties and fifties) is slowly revealed as an empty shell and, perhaps, a dangerous criminal. Jack’s final scene, a foggy, violent nighttime tableau reminiscent of the films of Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir (both of whom Bergman has expressed admiration for), is the film’s most emotionally resonant, even as it shows the director’s youthful overreach. Soon, with such breakthroughs as Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and The Seventh Seal (1957), Bergman would be able to more elegantly marry the dark and the light. Still, Crisis was an important stepping-stone toward artistic individuality, as well as the crucial first meeting between the director and Sjöström, a major influence on Bergman’s career and a true father figure, who would later iconically play Professor Isak Borg in Bergman’s masterpiece Wild Strawberries (1957).
PORT OF CALL: ON THE STREETS
One doesn’t usually associate neorealism with Ingmar Bergman, but as the director himself said years later, his fifth feature film, Port of Call, was made “in the spirit of Rossellini.” Neorealism was definitely in vogue at the time of Port of Call’s release, in 1948, following the international sensations of Open City and Bicycle Thieves, and its influence can be seen in Port of Call’s gritty working-class milieu and bare-bones narrative, which Bergman stripped down from the script, a traditional melodrama by Olle Länsberg, until it was barely recognizable from its first draft. After his frustrating experiences with Crisis (1946), the director was growing insistent on putting forth his own point of view.
In between Crisis and Port of Call, Bergman had directed three movies—It Rains on Our Love (1946), A Ship to India (1947), and Night Is My Future (1948)—as well as nine plays for the Gothenburg City Theatre, and his newfound professionalism shows in Port of Call, as does his searching for new ways of representing life on film. There’s an almost documentary feel to his examination of the mundane existence of the town’s working class. Early in the film, Bergman lingers on the daily lives of his two main characters: Berit, a young milliner who lives with her domineering mother, and Gösta, a sailor on leave in the port town, Gothenburg (where Bergman had lived and worked as a theater director for three years). But as Gösta comes to know the troubled Berit more intimately, the film moves into a darker interiority.
With its frank eroticism, one eye-opening instance of nudity, and pointedly liberal stance toward abortion, Port of Call was considered risqué even ten years after its initial release, when it opened in the United Kingdom with an X rating (it wasn’t released in the United States until 1963). Of course, the effects of the more sensational moments have lessened with age; what remains is a remarkably earthy melodrama, a gripping love story told with equal parts passion and remove. As memorable as the noir-tinged seduction scene in Gösta’s apartment are the beautifully high-contrast images of sailors going off to work in the hazy glow of dawn. This was, in fact, the first collaboration between Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, who would shoot many of the director’s seminal films in the following decade, including The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (both 1957). Though they would eventually part ways over artistic differences, their unique partnership produced an unparalleled body of work, and Port of Call is the first example of this duo’s stark, stunning cinematic worldview.
THIRST: OUT OF THE SHADOWS
With Thirst (1949), Ingmar Bergman began to display an astonishing technical virtuosity and control over the medium of film. A crosshatched, multilayered narrative, sewn together with fascinating side trips and flashbacks, Thirst was adapted by theater critic (and Bergman mentor) Herbert Grevenius from four controversial short stories written by famed Swedish stage actress Birgit Tengroth, and moved Bergman even further away from his theatrical origins. Simultaneously a portrait of a decaying marriage and a dreamlike journey through various characters’ tragic pasts and presents, the film evinces a newfound assurance, both in storytelling complexity and visual invention. Notoriously hard on his own work, Bergman himself was even able to later grant, “The film does show a respectable cinematographic vitality. I was developing my own way of making movies.”
The unmistakable personal quality of Thirst (retitled Three Strange Loves for certain international markets) might also have been attributable to Bergman’s recent separation from his second wife. This tale of Ruth (Eva Henning, as dark eyed and intense as the greatest of Bergman’s future heroines) and Bertil (Birger Malmsten, already a Bergman regular), an unhappily married couple traveling across Europe on vacation, is told with great tenderness and compassion. Following an extended opening digression—which reveals an earlier affair of Ruth’s—we gradually come to understand the push-pull, antagonize-seduce nature of Ruth and Bertil’s marriage through a series of scenes of conflict and reconciliation, masterfully shot in shadowy hotel rooms and suffocating train compartments. One especially exquisite, harmonious episode, as Ruth and Bertil shower, dress, and get ready in their hotel room in Basel, Switzerland, wonderfully expresses the couple’s casual intimacy, with a dexterous camera style and lovely real-time feel that anticipates the famously lengthy apartment scenes in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963)—and thus the coming new wave in European art cinema—as well as Bergman’s own Scenes from a Marriage (1973).
Unfortunately, this moving scene is merely the calm before the storm, and Thirst soon moves into ever darker territory, digging deeper into the couple’s strained relationship and momentarily branching off into a parallel narrative that follows the psychological disintegration of Ruth’s former ballet-school friend, Viola (played by writer Tengroth herself). The film thus becomes, in part, the story of women perched on the edge of sanity, victimized but resilient, fragile yet strong willed—like those in so many of the director’s later works, from Through a Glass Darkly (1961) to Persona (1966). The sequences of the couple in train compartments, with Ruth’s shadowy suffocation on the inside and German ruins on the outside, are especially prefigurative of later Bergman, particularly The Silence (1963), with its unforgettable juxtaposition of two women’s intimate antagonism and the ambiguously apocalyptic countryside glimpsed from their train window. As with that film, some of the women in Thirst are redeemed; others are not. Yet they are all touched by Bergman’s extraordinary empathy and fascination.
TO JOY: ONE FROM THE HEART
One year after Thirst, with the pain from the dissolution of his second marriage still fresh, Ingmar Bergman made To Joy (1949), a lament for his failed relationship and an act of penance. Taking its title from Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” the final chorale movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Bergman’s love story is swoony with classical romanticism and burdened by tragedy—a portrait of a marriage we know to be doomed from the start and a morality tale focusing on the ever-deepening misery of its selfish, confused protagonist.
Bergman has said that To Joy was based on the idea that “even if one is only a mediocrity, still one must function.” A violinist in an orchestra in Hälsingborg (where Bergman had matured as the town theater’s artistic director), Stig (Stig Olin) wishes to become a soloist, but he lives in almost paralyzing fear that he is merely second-rate, a perception that his tender, patient wife and fellow musician, Marta, can only stave off for so long. Bergman has acknowledged the film as a devastating critique of his own behavior in the early part of his career and how his own self-doubt crippled his personal relationships; indeed, the film plays out almost as though the director is cringing from behind the camera. The initial bliss of courtship and the glow of pregnancy soon enough deteriorate into loathsome adultery, mutual resentment, and, in one shocking instance, physical abuse. And we know from the film’s foreboding introduction exactly what will become of Marta; the narrative thus unfolds as an inexorable crawl toward disillusionment.
Yet there is a glimmer of redemption in To Joy, and it comes from the music itself. Mendelssohn, Mozart, Smetana, and, of course, Beethoven give voice to emotions that the characters sometimes cannot, and Bergman responds with glorious, awed imagery: his camera swoops and glides over the orchestra as they rehearse, devoting looming close-ups to the imposing cellos and delicate pans to the violins. The classical-music episodes, presided over by the tough-loving conductor–father figure Sönderby (Victor Sjöström, Bergman’s on-set consultant on his first film, Crisis , and later immortalized in Wild Strawberries ), serve as emotional interludes, much-needed respites from the unhappiness that Stig wallows in. The final image, of Stig’s young son watching from the empty auditorium seats as the orchestra crescendos, is both the director’s expression of guilt and a plea for forgiveness. Presaging Bergman’s later metaphorical use of children in The Silence (1963), Persona (1966), and Fanny and Alexander (1982), the boy’s face serves as the film’s ultimate conscience; it might as well be Bergman himself watching from the wings.
Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.